Sunday, April 29, 2012

The Inexorable Decline of Home Cooking

In preparation for my upcoming trip to Italy for a CIEE Faculty Development Workshop (entitled "Food from a 'Glocal' Perspective: Italy, the Mediterranean, and the Globe"--you can see the itinerary here if you're interested), I have begun plowing through the seminar reading list. Two of the books so far, Around the Tuscan Table: Food, Family, and Gender in Twentieth Century Florence by Carol M. Counihan and Dinner Roles: America Women and Culinary Culture by Sherrie A. Inness, deal, at least in part, with the expectation that women will be at home doing the family cooking every day. The entry of women into the workforce over the course of the 20th century has meant that women have been challenged to meet both the obligations of a job and the demands of the home, with men only very gradually assuming some of the home duties. The result, in both Italy and the United States, has been the decline of home cooking and an increasing reliance on convenience foods.

I should note that neither author explicitly laments this change. Counihan, with her 20 year span of interviewing the same consultants, simply reports that the women and men whom she interviews have noted this change. They would prefer the more traditional home cooking still provided by older women who don't work outside the home, but the women are emphatic that they no longer have time for this kind of cooking and may never have learned it in the first place. The Tuscan men give lip service to the fact that the women don't have time for traditional cooking, but grumble about it. Most men seemed generally unwilling to help in the kitchen, although the situation was changing a little in the early 21st century. The result for Tuscan food? More convenience food, more eating out, the introduction of more "international" recipes (the title given to the food by the consultants) that were fast, but involved the heavy use of cream and other more fattening ingredients than in traditional cuisine. Counihan also implies that the Italian birthrate, at this point the lowest in Europe, can be explained in part by the fact that Italian men have been very reluctant to help with any traditionally female jobs--such as cooking, cleaning, or childrearing--perhaps more so than in other European countries. Women, desiring to work outside the home for either personal fulfillment, independence, or economic necessity, feel they don't have the time or energy to have more children.

Inness takes a different approach--she analyzes cookbooks, magazines and other media for evidence that women have been socialized from a young age to assume that they are the ones responsible for home cooking. Admittedly, I have not yet finished with the book, but her approach seems to be that external pressure on women to be home cooks and find fulfillment in this role is both insidious and intense. Her ideas are not necessarily new, but she does follow other authors in pointing out that food manufacturers, grocery stores, and related enterprises have used advertising to push convenience foods. For better coverage of this phenomenon, read Laura Shapiro (Something from the Oven: Reinventing Dinner in 1950s America) and Harvey Levenstein (Revolution at the Table: The Transformation of the American Diet).

It is certainly true that women's entry into the workforce has changed the American diet. In popular media today, it seems like I either see a celebration of foodie culture OR dire warnings about what processed and convenience foods (along with lack of exercise) are doing to our health and culture. I enjoy cooking, but admit that everyday, 30 minute cooking to get something on the table sometimes drives me crazy. After starting my day at 5am, wrangling children, spending an hour in traffic, dealing with everything at work, and spending another hour in traffic, there are days when the last thing I want to do is get into the kitchen to figure out what to feed everyone. I have a husband who's willing to help out by cooking or getting takeout a couple of times a week, but I still feel pressure to make dinner and guilt when I don't.

How much of the current state of home cooking be laid at the feet of women? How much is the responsibility of a capitalist economy where there is relentless pressure from advertising steering us towards fast foods, convenience foods, and other food which is not even really food? What role should men play in feeding their families?

I've no brilliant answers to these questions, but I do think about them a lot. Fortunately, there's a lot of great reading material out there to help me think about it. I'll be posting further reading suggestions in future posts.


  1. Great post and I look forward to reading more :) If you add the "Followers" gadget in Blogger layout, I'll follow!

    1. Ok, I think I just figured out how to do that. Thanks!